Riding Out Turbulent Geopolitics


Dev Raj Dahal

Can Nepal stand apart from the geopolitical turbulence of today’s world and develop socially, economically and politically by safely adapting and keeping its sovereignty intact? It is this sovereignty that marks a feature of enduring status of its independent status enabling leaders to rise up to critical challenges. Nepalis are conceiving national image in a positive way, constructing a frame to defend its culture, resources and people and harnessing an art of national way of life. 

One can, therefore, answer this question in a positive way if Nepali leaders take up a deeply honourable streak, move beyond partisan frame to national consensus on governance and foreign policy issues, abide by the spirit of the constitution that defines the institutions and processes of governance and seeks peaceful solution of looming internal and geopolitical challenges. Nepal’s historical resilience to survive between India and China abutting each other in the Asian map and adjust to the turbulent circumstances as one of the oldest nations in the world provides ample hope to transcend the perilous geopolitical crossroads it finds engulfed now.

Confucian values

The Indian and American interest in regime compatibility with Nepal and cultivation of adversarial politics or even aiding collusion of odd forces, however, appear incongruous to China’s Confucian values of respecting sovereignty and creating harmonious society and world order. Nepal’s ties with its neighbours are based on high-stakes logic of security, survival, progress and predictability, not a matter of choice like with other friendly nations, as both share its civilisational values and favour close ties.  But for reasons of rival ambition of global power status each fears the other of deflating it.

Only Nepalis’ aspiration for democratic self-determination in politics, laws and development can affirm national sovereignty, resolve the security dilemma of neighbours, enable correct direction and gather esteem from other powers. Two critical questions are: how can Nepal achieve internal peace, security and stability if all rivals fight for the success of their internal allies and seek regime-conforming foreign policy? Do they have equal stake in Nepal or only foster an instrumental strategy of each other’s outreach and pushback?

The temptation of some Nepali leaders to change the internal frame of the state, its spiritual soul and replace historically defined external metaphor of a sensitive “yam between two bounders,” by repertoires of fungible, insensitive notions of a “vibrant bridge” to move the nation to global village without preconditions, adoption of a rentier “transit state” to enrich from others’ transactions, explosive “dynamite” to scare others even foreign investors, or “resetting foreign policy” in tune with the great game of global pivoting to Asia to contain the ascent of Eurasian powers do not keep the consistency of its worldview.  

Those crassly materialistic notions in no way deem Nepal as a motherland and offer better choices for foreign policy manoeuvre. As they do not reflect the structural reality of the nation, they easily forfeit its existing leverage and can yield catastrophic outcomes. Evidently treating Nepali nation as a lifeless physical object without breathing people, their culture, history, heritage and norms of civilisation capable of bonding of humanity, it  only strays from the prided codes of Panchasheel, nonalignment and international law. Nepal utilised its traditional wisdom, guts and instinct to survive the imperial, hegemonic, multi-state and cooperatives regimes fitting to the shifting cognitive template and context.  

Crafting an effective course of action can avert structural strain and the free fall. In this sense, institutional memory matters in conducting diplomacy. Nepali leaders must be cautious enough in balancing its strategy with various poles of powers -- India, China, the USA, EU, Russia, Middle East, etc. and their disparate orientations rather than linger with the psychology of a buffer cemented by the legacy of its “attributional affinity” to the Anglo-Saxon world, not diversification for reaping diplomatic and development gains. The factors that turned it resilient are the vitality of its tolerant culture, vigour of the centripetal forces, geographic pivot of history, ability to cohere state-society interface, impulse for active self-defence and skill to pull out from a site that lowers its freedom in the regional and global relations. 

But, retraction from any accord Nepali leaders have hastily penned without reasoned deliberation can, however, spoil its international acceptability and spiral the fit of angry noises, not spark light to fix its foreign policy in the interconnected world. Leaders are lured to execute projects without accord, sign accord but escape from execution and bear no responsibility for the choice they made other than being disciplined by Supreme Court or public outcry.

Nepal’s great internal vigour lies in its unity in diversity and limit to many leanings of Nepali leaders to divide people stretching partisan constituency and exposing them to rude politics of subsidiary identities and fit them in the image of ideologies, not shoring up the cognitive muscle of the nation’s history, heritage and society and learn from scholars about the need to conceptualise the changing framework condition of foreign policy.  Indulging in personal diplomatic games less marked by institutional code, diplomatic skill and artistry cannot catch the high moral ground. 

Ordinary Nepalis are not biased and feel any need to become over reactive to others having general usefulness. This is the mark of its openness to learning from other’s creative ideas, poise in one’s own native cognitive muscle and civilisational heritage of tolerance. The virtue of this openness has inspired many sages and seers to come to Nepal to perform meditation and reflection and attain enlightenment. This has allowed Nepalis to travel and work in many parts of the world but keep Nepali identity. It is not startling because the apostles of native enlightenment Astavakra, Janak, Ved Vyas, Gautam Buddha, etc. spread the universal messages of middle path, justice, brotherhood and peace. 

They propounded timeless values and devoted their lives for the well-being of all living species, without being anthropocentric. This is not history; ordinary Nepalis often extol these virtues, disown the ideas of indoctrinated ignorant that often portray the national heritage as irrational darkness and question the ruthless use of prejudiced knowledge and action promising a sunny future that can never be animated. Nepal’s classical insight into statecraft provided a compass on how to maintain national independence. This independence is more vital now than any comparable time in Nepal’s history as the nation’s crucial challenges of political polarisation, economic exhaustion and mal-adaptation to geopolitical pulls of conflicting initiatives in areas of strategic partnership,  alliance and security, economic and political cooperation have strained its code-based domestic and foreign policy. 

Nepali elites, soaked with postmodernism, have added other risks - deliberately deconstructing its history, values and institutions and exposing this weak state to unstable geopolitical competition of great powers. Authoritarian politics is an inversion of popular sovereignty inscribed in Nepal’s constitution. There are also non-state actors — special interest groups, predators, thieves, criminals, armed groups and traitors for whom national sovereignty is an enemy. The lust for power, resources and separate identities continues to stampede over the national space creating a vicious cycle of fear, insecurity, loss of public order and dissonant progress created by the side path of leaders for regime survival, not cultivating the spirit of sustainable progress. 

Responsible leaders avert uneasy choices between yielding to any  poles of power which its strategic geography does not allow,  escalate tension with others which the nation ill afford for fear of counteraction or opt for mediocrity that does not embrace democracy or meritocracy. Nepal can escape from the chrysalis of dependency if leaders prudently utilise its great national strengths in tolerance, youth bulge, hydropower, liberal economy, strategic geography and tend global acceptability in a multi-polarising world order. The animation of these potential sources of power can provide Nepal adequate weight to sail in the connected, yet polarised and competitive regional and global order.

Formulation of contextual policy can help reclaim its historical identity of an independent state and restore the dignity of its people. The virtuous cycle of progress in Nepal can be created in the optimisation of systemic values — in socialisation and action — not in the maximisation of one power’s interests while minimising the others. Nepalis yearn for security, basic needs, jobs, justice and ecological sustainability. Nepali leaders must rationally assess where it can promote national interest, where it needs to foster regional interests and where it can forward multi-lateral cooperative interests beneficial to all sides.

Ethical necessity

It is neither absurd nor startling for establishing Nepal a safe precinct of peace. It is not absurd to Nepali geopolitical imperative for physical survival, ethical necessity to foster a policy of peaceful co-existence and psychological deterrence against possible external predation. Leaders’ flaws are caused by their excessive party-mindedness and power-oriented linear approach, not the systemic, national and democratic one. Only the removal of their flaws can overcome regular failure of deliberation lacking systemic awareness, conscience and behaviour. 

Nepalis’ folk souls often yearn for peace with justice across many spheres of life. This is its national characteristic. The viability of Nepal rests on the internalisation of this “folk soul” into the national life of elites, leaders and decision-makers. Only then constitutional expression of foreign policy helps to overcome perilous geopolitics, institutionalise and reconcile its historical legacy of independence and current requirement of agility in diplomatic and policy balance. 

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)

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